By Jackie Valley, The Nevada Independent

Nevada students showed continued improvement on state standardized tests — particularly on the math portion — they took in the spring, according to preliminary data released Tuesday by the Nevada Department of Education. But the state still faces an uphill battle to reach its goals.

The math proficiency rate on the Smarter Balanced assessments increased for grades three through eight— in other words, all grade levels that took the test — this year. Eighth-graders displayed the most growth, increasing their math proficiency rate by 12.07 percent to 29.57 percent.

Overall, students performed better on the English Language Arts (ELA) assessment as well, but the gains were not as dramatic. Seventh-graders were the only exception: That grade level’s proficiency level dipped by .12 percent to 46.95 percent on the ELA test.

Students are deemed proficient in the subject areas if they achieve a level three or four on the Smarter Balanced assessments, which are commonly referred to as the SBAC tests. All students in grades three through eight take the computer-adaptive tests.

State Superintendent Steve Canavero lauded the widespread growth, saying it’s another indication of Nevada’s improving K-12 education system.

“The improvement in both math and English Language Arts (ELA) once again demonstrates that Nevada is on course to become the fastest improving state in the nation,” Canavero said in a statement. “I believe that the funding priorities set forth by Governor Brian Sandoval and our legislature during the past two sessions are beginning to bear fruit.”

Progress and room for improvement

The double-digit increase for eighth grade’s math proficiency rate is the most striking improvement, but officials said it’s the result of a policy change.

In previous years, eighth-graders enrolled in Algebra I — an advanced math course — were exempt from taking the SBAC test because they took a separate end-of-course exam for the high school-level class, said Greg Bortolin, a spokesman for the Nevada Department of Education. That changed for the 2017-2018 school year. Students no longer take end-of-course exams, so they participated in the SBAC test this spring.

While the high-achieving students likely boosted that proficiency rate, education officials acknowledged room for improvement.

“That number is still not where we want it,” Bortolin said. “We still want to see that number rise dramatically.”

The same could be said for all the grade-level test results. Despite increases, some of which were more slight than others, the proficiency rates fall short of goals set in the state plan to align with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The state’s plan lists long-term proficiency goals of 61 percent for ELA and 41 percent for math by 2022. The proficiency targets for the 2017-2018 school year were 54 percent for ELA and 37 percent for math.

But the highest ELA proficiency rate this year was 50.33 percent for fifth grade. As for math, only third and fourth grade exceeded the 37 percent target proficiency rate this year.

“Setting lofty goals is critical,” Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara said. “I think it helps us drive the conversation.”